What Works Blogfest

To get everyone excited for the LTUE Contest 2014–which will be accepting submissions soon and publishing the winners for the first time this year in the debut edition of Sibyl’s Scriptorium [deep gasping breath]–we’re exploring the SFF short stories, poems, and illustrations we’ve loved. To participate in the blogfest yourself, follow the button.


Today, I’m focusing on the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, by Ursula K. Leguin. If you haven’t been forced to read it in school at some point in your life, please do yourself a favor and follow the link to this amazing story.

Read it: I’ll wait. Then come back.

Finished? Good.

One of the most remarkable things about this 1974 Hugo-Award-Winning story is that it really doesn’t have a plot. There are no main characters you want to root for. Not one character is even named. There is no story objective or obstacles to be overcome. No protagonist or antagonist. No dramatic tension or romance.

There is only the question: Is the happiness of the many important enough to overcome the misery of one?

The story describes a perfect town, where everyone is wonderfully happy. Peace and prosperity reign supreme. The normal trials of life are skipped over, as if a magical spell has banished all sources of unreasonable pain…

… and concentrated them in one tiny spot.

Bearing the price for everyone’s happiness, a single child languishes in squalor and isolation. Filthy, without affection, and despairingly bewildered, this child remembers a happier time, but will never know it again. Instead, young people of the town are paraded past the child’s tiny room and told of the price this child pays for the happiness of so many.

Most are disgusted, but decide to maximize the opportunity and live the best lives they can.

Then there are the titular individuals:

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home…. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

This story sticks with me because I have a rather strong conviction of the power and necessity of individual trial. Though the happiness of the majority of Omelas seems to be ideal, I can’t think about it without seeing it all as rather… pointless. Without struggle and suffering, how can anyone appreciate success and happiness? I don’t at all believe that a second-hand knowledge of suffering from knowing about the pitiful child can stand as a useful substitute for the glory of an individual’s triumph over pain.

On the other hand…

I’m a Christian, and I’m awfully grateful that someone else suffered for my sins so I won’t have to. Walking away from that kind of sacrifice seems wasteful, ungrateful, and ultimately pointless as well, since the price paid isn’t lessened by such a protest.

So if I were to summarize what works in this story, it’s that it makes me think two things at once, with no clear answer on what is morally best. Ms. Le Guin, genius that she is, simply presents an impossible situation, explains the possible reactions, and leaves it to me to agonize over what I would do.

What would you do? Stay or walk?